Liberty University Chancellor and President Jerry Falwell Jr. has been placed on “indefinite leave” after he posted a provocative photo of himself on a social media site.
Falwell posted the photo on Instagram in early August. It depicted him with his arm around a young woman while holding a drink. In the photo, both Falwell and the woman have their pants undone and are exposing their stomachs. Falwell captioned the photo, “More vacation shots. Lots of good friends visited us on the yacht. I promise that’s just black water in my glass. It was a prop only.”
Falwell, a prominent Christian nationalist and close ally of President Donald Trump, quickly removed the photo but a reporter from the Houston Chronicle had already tweeted about it. A media eruption followed. Falwell claimed that the whole thing was a joke and told a Virginia radio station that the woman in the photo is his wife’s assistant. He said she was pregnant and couldn’t button her shorts, and that his pants were undone because they were an old pair and were too tight.
The Board of Trustees at Liberty University announced Aug. 7 that Falwell had agreed to take an “indefinite leave of absence.”
On a post on its “Wall of Separation” blog, Americans United pointed out that the incident is just the latest in a string of inappropriate actions by Falwell. AU listed several:
• Earlier this year, Falwell joined forces with a band of coronavirus deniers, insisting that the pandemic, which has killed more than 162,000 people in the U.S. alone, was being overblown by liberals to undermine Trump. He has ridiculed the idea that people should wear masks in public places and tweeted a photo of a mask with a racist image.
• At a time when other universities were closing down due to the pandemic, Falwell insisted that Liberty would stay open. After a Liberty professor of English named Marybeth Davis Baggett publicly questioned Falwell’s decision in an opinion column, he issued a tweet calling her “Baggett lady.” (Baggett has since left Liberty.) When a parent wrote to him to complain about the school staying open, Falwell called the man a “dummy.” Several Liberty students and faculty were reported to have contracted COVID-19.
• After The New York Times and ProPublica published stories about Liberty that Falwell did not like, he attempted to have a Times photographer and a ProPublica writer arrested for trespassing on campus.
• Former students have complained that Falwell runs the school as an autocrat who brooks no dissent. Most Liberty professors don’t have tenure. Anyone who fails to toe Falwell’s line can be summarily fired.
• Angered by the fact that Democrats won statewide offices in Virginia in 2019, Falwell proposed that huge swaths of the state secede and join West Virginia.
• Falwell has repeatedly sought to excuse appalling behavior by Trump and has gone so far as to assert that there is nothing Trump could do that would cause him to withdraw his support.
• In 2015, Falwell suggested that students begin carrying concealed handguns so “we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill.”
Liberty announced Aug. 10 that Jerry Prevo, chair of the university’s Board of Trustees, will serve as acting president in Falwell’s absence.
Meanwhile, alumni and others connected to the school are speaking out. Several Liberty graduates, instructors and current students have formed a group called Save 71, which is urging that Falwell be removed for good.
“Over the past several years, President Jerry Falwell Jr. has damaged the spiritual vitality, academic quality, and national reputation of Liberty University,” asserts the group on its website. “We are a group of Liberty alumni, students, and faculty calling on the Board of Trustees to permanently remove President Falwell and replace him with a responsible and virtuous Christian leader.”
Editor's Note: After this issue of Church & State went to press, Falwell agreed to resign after stories emerged about him and his wife being involved in a sexual affair with a young man in Florida.